The Internet continues to enjoy the highest constitutional freedoms.
Numerous attempts to censor online material, even for the sake of protecting minors from exposure to indecent material, have repeatedly been struck down by the Supreme Court.
But parents are increasingly concerned about what their kids can access on the Web, and legislators continue to seek ways to put limits on what kids can see.
"Some form of regulation is needed because some stuff just shouldn't be out there," said Anna Manokoune, a 33-year-old Garden Grove, Calif., mother of five girls ages 6 to 14.
In response to such concerns, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., introduced the Child Safe Viewing Act in February. The bill mandates that the Federal Communications Commission continuously review and implement the most cutting-edge technologies that can help parents censor audio and video material their kids see over the Internet.
"It's an uphill battle for parents trying to protect their kids from viewing inappropriate programming," Pryor said. "Today's technology to protect children from indecency goes above and beyond the capabilities of the V-Chip. And with over 500 channels and video streaming, parents could use a little help. The time for the FCC to act on behalf of our children is now. My legislation will make sure that happens."
The bill was passed unanimously this month by the Senate Commerce Committee and currently awaits debate on the Senate floor. Pryor is confident that the bill will eventually become law, according to a Senate aide.
As part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress required that manufacturers embed a V-Chip within televisions to let parents screen the programs their children were watching according to a rating system.
However, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation national survey revealed that 57 percent of parents weren't even aware that they had a V-Chip. Some critics believe that developing a form of V-Chip for computers might prove useless because parents didn't even use it when it was in their televisions.
'V-Chip Is a Failure'
"The V-Chip is a failure," said Leslie Harris, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Ten years after the V-Chip, there's no innovation. The FCC has no experience with the Internet. We're very concerned that that this is the first step towards mandated technology for TV and Internet."
She insists that handing over an inquiry into the latest censoring technologies for parents to the FCC is a conflict of interest.
"If Congress wants to inform itself of what new technology there is, they should ask a neutral party to do this. Not one with an interest in regulation," she said. "[The bill] is a big step back for openness, innovation and freedom, which is the hallmark of the Internet."
Joan Irvine, executive director of the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection, says the Child Safe Viewing Act is repetitive because many blocking and filtering technologies are already available.
"I don't see this bill being effective because everything in the bill has already been done," she said.
She also warns against the unrealistic expectation that the FCC can find and implement blocking technology that will eliminate all inappropriate material from minors' computers, TVs, cell phones and portable media devices.
"No matter what the technology, it won't block pedophiles. ASACP [Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection] launched the RTA or Restricted to Adults Web site label at the beginning of this year," she said. "While some companies will use the label, others won't so they won't be filtered out. Commercial child porn — you think they're gonna label [it]? And pedophiles saying their 14 or 15 years old? There is no way for the system to prove whether they are or [are] not."
Education Vs. Technology
Herb Lin, a senior scientist at the National Research Council, believes that education is paramount to protecting children, not filtering technology.
"While technology and the law have a meaningful, not trivial role, what has been missing is education," Lin said.
He then drew an analogy to the bill's attempt to shield children.
"If you have a swimming pool, what do you do, lock up the pool? Sure, but most important thing to do is to teach kids how to swim," he said.
He also explains what he believes is the fundamental problem with Pryor's legislation: effectiveness.
"All of these approaches to filtering, you have to get people to use them. If [they don't] use them, then they're not effective. Most people don't use them. That doesn't mean they shouldn't have the option," Lin said. "No filter is 100 percent effective. If it's 90 percent effective, for example in getting kids to not see people naked, you still have to deal with kids seeing it now and then. If you educate your kids, then it doesn't matter because they already know how to conduct themselves."
Marv Johnson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, also advocates education.
"The most effective thing for the government to do is to fund media relation education for parents and children. Everybody needs to know how to be a savvy media consumer in this day and age," Johnson said. "The government tends to ignore media education and goes for content regulation. Clearly that will cause a First Amendment problem. The least constitutionally objectionable way is mostly ignored by people who make these proposals."
Although Pryor introduced the Safe Viewing Act to empower parents to protect their kids from obscene material and profane language, critics such as Barry Fagin, founder of Families Against Internet Censorship, view the bill as another nail in the coffin of parental rights.
"Bills like this encourage bad parenting. Friends at the FCC taking care of it. For every family with complaints about indecent programming, what are you doing? Why not turn the TV off? Shame on you! Instead you're sending it to an anonymous bureaucrat," said Fagin, who teaches at the Air Force Academy and stressed that he was expressing his own opinion, not the opinion of the government.
Fagin is convinced that ultimately parents are responsible for the material their children view.
"Raising children is much harder than running the country. Congress should realize that and let parents do their job," he said.
As the co-author of a National Academy of Science report on the subject, Lin knows firsthand the tools and strategies available to protect kids from pornography and other inappropriate Internet content. Yet, he chooses to monitor the material his 12-year-old daughter views himself.
"I have no personal evidence that the V-Chip has an impact at all on TV," he said. "I don't use it. I keep an eye on what my kid watches. She sits in the living room with the computer and screen facing the center of the room. I do my work in the living room. The time has come when she wants a computer in her room, but I want to see what she's doing."